Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Language and Culture--Unseparable?

In Applied Linguistics (my Monday night class), we talked about "World Englishes" or the versions of English that are spoken in other countries, especially in countries colonized by English-speaking nations, such as India. We encountered the question, "Does language homogeneity lead to cultural homogeneity? Are culture and language intertwined?" The group discussing that question answered no, you can be from a certain culture without speaking that language. Different cultures can exist without different language because even if people say the same thing, they don't mean the same thing*.

My response was to wholeheartedly disagree. You may be an ethnic Indian, but if you don't speak Hindi (or whichever of the Indian languages your family speaks), you are still only marginally from that culture. I'm thinking of the Gogol in The Namesake who would identify himself as American, even though his parents were of the Bengali culture and identified themselves as Bengali.

I brought up the issue of Native Americans who are slowly losing their language as the younger generation doesn't see necessity of learning it when English suffices. Consequently, they are also slowly losing their culture and traditional way of life. Another student countered that "some Native Americans still dressed up and did the dances," but that their culture? I hated to be rude, but I don't think she quite understood all of the aspects of culture loss.

I also brought up modern Italian: when Italy formed itself as a nation instead of a bunch of little nation-states, they taught everyone to speak Dante's Italian as a way to build a cohesive culture and nation. If culture and language are not so inextricably connected, then why did they do this...and why did it work?

Catalunya--Northern Spain, including Barcelona, in Spain is another example. They know Castillian Spanish, but they prefer to speak Catalan because it's the regional language, and the people are very proud of it and their culture. Castillians, by comparison, are also proud of their language and distinct culture--these two regions are in the same country, but they have different identities that relate directly to their languages.

I could argue all day long about this, but I assert that if you cut off a culture from their language, you'll see a fading away of that culture as the dominant language and culture take over. Why do you think the first thing British colonizers did was teach the colonized English and make them go to English schools? Why do you think in certain areas, the native language was forbidden and the language of the colonizer was adopted? Why were slaves separated from those who spoke their same language and shared their cultural identity? Because we know that if we didn't speak English, our culture would not be American, and if we want to do away with other cultures, we insist that they abandon their language.

I realized, at this moment, why the official language debate in the US mattered. If we declare an official language (of English?), then we officially sanction that the wonderful blend of cultures and traditions that thrive in certain areas are not valid. They don't speak English/American, they don't prescribe to American culture. And how sad that would be if all cultures became alike.

*If you're a good deconstructionist, this is probably true. However, I tend to believe that the influences of Mother Culture are strong enough that we think enough alike, even if we don't have the same exact experience of a word or sentence. We just like to think that we're so different and individual from each other that our thought processes and experiences are completely unique. If this were true, then we'd be unable to form human connections, since relationships are usually founded on shared interests, experiences of the world, and ideas.

1 comment:

Phillip Worley said...

Since I'm a sucky friend and we never talk anymore, I thought I'd do the next best thing and read through your blog.

I agree whole-heartedly with your take on the importance of language to culture. I'm actually surprised that your classmates resisted you on this one. Why do you think they did?

I must say, though, that you seem to make a case for English being the official language. It's in the general interest of the nation and the states to build a cohesive culture. I happen to think that we should let our culture evolve organically without the heavy hand of government. But since you've made a very convincing case that language is important for culture, it almost seems like you've handed the "English-only" advocates an important point in their favor. There are some who might say sharing a language/culture would strengthen the nation? Thoughts?